By L.A. Hilton
When I was twenty-two I had just finished university and was in an extremely difficult situation with regards to money and, indeed, any sense of where my life might be heading. I took various jobs that were all low-paid and either consisted of not enough hours or of too many. The provincial northern town, which I called home, offered few opportunities for employment. It dawned on me that for the time-being I was limited to shops or factories; although many of my friends had moved to London this was something in which I desperately did not want to follow suit. The factories all seemed to pay well enough for me to continue paying the meagre rent I’d offered my parents and were all a short drive from their house. The work would be mind-numbingly dull but I was somebody who had discovered a quiet pleasure in being bored. I found that boredom was the polar opposite of stress, both feelings could manifest themselves as quiet desperation but boredom, more often than not, left me sleepy. Stress, on the other hand was something I dealt with terribly. My first job that summer was working in a very busy, high-street branch of Costa Coffee and, while the work was simple, it wasn’t always easy. The machines would routinely break down or work slower than the lunch-hour rush would require; people would shout and scream at me and I would have to ignore their complaints due to understaffing. I would be berated personally for the slow service. At this time I regularly considered the ways in which I had been a difficult customer in past retail situations and vowed to change my ways. I am confident that anybody who has ever worked in a shop will tell you that customers are terrible people who consider retail staff to be lesser humans; common sense and decency leaves them when they are on the verge of a purchase and you, the member of staff, are the only thing that stands between them and their goods. They presume that you want to screw them at every opportunity and this attitude of theirs, over time, leaves you feeling exactly that way. My father was a former miner and came from a family all of whom worked in the mines. He laughed heartily when I told him how difficult the work was and, when I tried to explain that the work itself wasn’t difficult – that I could make hundreds of coffees a day, but the customers were starting to give me a stomach ulcer – his explanation for the laughter was that I would have never lasted in the pits. He told me that I had no idea what hard graft really was and that shop work was probably the perfect job for somebody like me. I lasted only three months in the job – my nerves were so damaged that my hands were burnt from unsteadily holding hot beverages. My friend Louise, who had been back from London over summer, had just gone back to continue her work as an artist which meant that I had nobody (except for my laughing dad) to talk to about the problems. But this, by far, was not the worst working experience I had that year.
For three weeks I remained unemployed. I signed on and didn’t receive any money for the entirety of the time I was without work. I found work after the three week mark and after four weeks I received three weeks of jobseekers money. For this time I walked to the jobcentre and to interviews, I walked to the shops in the rain.
I then got a job in a factory that made meat pies. Louise said how this was awkwardly cliché for a Northerner and that were this to have been in fiction, critics might’ve called the writing hackneyed. It was a forty five minute bus ride away from my house and I couldn’t drive due to lack (and therefore, expense) of parking. The factory was old and had disused chimneys on top which were grey and green from moss, growing wildly for fifty years. Although the factory was old brickwork with stone forecourts, the interior was modern and polished chrome. Tables of thin silver metal, sharp and clinical, until midway through the day when they would be a mess of smeared, unidentifiable pink meat. The job, again, was simple but this time the boredom was more pronounced for exactly that reason. Stuffing meat into pastry cases, once you have the correct rhythm, is child’s play. The pastry cases come along on a conveyor belt and you take one with your left hand and with your right you stuff a fist size ball of meat inside. The pastry case is then deposited back on the conveyor belt in a position marked on the material of the belt with a long line – as long as the pastry is aligned with the middle of the conveyor, the gravy machine will squirt the liquid directly into the centre. I discovered that the reason some gravy is often frozen to the outside of the pastry case is due to people, in my role, not positioning the pastry case correctly – most of the liquid would still go in but some wouldn’t. I discovered that if a person is so inclined they can write to the pie company following an incidence of exterior gravy and receive a coupon for free replacement pies. This was how the managerial staff measured our success – through the amount of pie-based complaint letters received. The job was so mundane that during my shifts I would appear vacant and brainless, some mindless child of pharmaceutical experimentation, perhaps. I would be slightly bent at the waist which caused excruciating back pain after 8 hours. The other staff were essentially non-existent due to the high noise levels and the fact that I ate my lunch in the bus shelter outside looking at the rain. They let me go after a month as they had to make cuts to their staff to increase profit which they cheerfully told me should be driven up by a new machine they had just acquired. Around this time I received a postcard from Louise in London, it had her on the front of it standing next to a train station called Mudchute – she told me that she knew I’d find that funny and also find the fact that she sent me a postcard from within England perverse. I read that Graham Greene had fought a war on boredom which involved playing Russian roulette in the countryside. He seemed to be saying that life was driving him to gamble with his own mortality because of the prosaic spiritlessness of well-to-do existence. I felt exactly the opposite, even after my exposure to boredom. I craved it. It made me safe.
Almost immediately after being let go by the factory I found a job of such substantial humiliation that I reserve the story for social gatherings, whereby telling it will make me look as though I am both funny and easy-going. On the same street that housed Costa Coffee there was a chicken shop that sold fried foods in the same style as the popular franchise KFC. My town had never attracted a KFC and so Martin’s Chicken did quite well. It had a gaudy yellow sign and was lit like a supermarket. Our town had a locally renowned drinking culture; throngs of revellers would often litter our streets after dark and so when I saw the ‘HELP WANTED’ advert in the window I knew that this was for me. It would be staying open for the foreseeable future and would likely have a large enough customer base to ensure that staff weren’t let go regularly. I knew my father would be surprised to hear about me getting a job that was advertised within the workplace itself; a regular gripe of his being that in his day things weren’t all done online. Although it would be busy evening work I would do it gladly; I had little else to occupy my time. In fact, I had recently started using drugs in a way that I hadn’t before. Mainly, I think now, to turn the boredom of my life into the sense of peace that I craved. There was no formal interview for the job, they didn’t even require a CV and, on my first day, I discovered that my role was mascot for the company. Each evening, or in the daytime if something was going on in the town-centre, I was to stand out in the street near the shop, dressed as a bright yellow chicken in a large, heavy costume covered in feathers and a giant head that went over mine. The head had a long beak with two eye-holes near where the chicken’s nostrils would have been, cleverly designed so that I could see well enough to perform my routine. The chicken wore a waistcoat and carried a cane. I was to get the attention of passers-by and spin, showing them the message on my back, which exclaimed that the best chicken in town could be found at Martin’s Chicken. I thought this method of promotion would be highly ineffective.
During the time I was working these jobs my drug consumption had steadily risen. I found that the prospect of dressing like a chicken only worsened the problem. In the early stages, I had been meeting with a man called Noel in the fields about a mile from my parent’s house to buy and take the drugs. He was my only connection in my small town and I presumed there weren’t actually that many other options like there had been in my university days, during which time my usage had been much, much milder. He was skinny, three years my senior and wore thin t-shirts in all weather. At first, without any drug knowledge, I was at his mercy and the tablets he sold me were known only to me as pills and, prior to the first ingestion, I had no idea what they would do to me. In hindsight I see that it was a bit foolhardy of me to venture into an isolated location with a man I didn’t know and take drugs that he possessed and of which I had no experience. However the first experience was wonderful and we spent a timeless afternoon in the sleet sitting on the top of a picnic bench swaying with the gusts of wind and laughing. We took the same pills a week later and went to a local pub to meet his friends, all of whom were nondescript and didn’t speak to me. The music in the pub was usually quiet but on this occasion I found myself completely entranced, I would be urgently trying to move with each beat, high notes would send rapturous wailing from inside me into the open – though Noel denied hearing me do this. We continued with the pills for some time and I realised that they were some kind of ecstasy concoction, though I will admit that I still don’t know for certain. I always found it strange the way some people speak with absolute clarity on matters of illegal drugs; names, street-names, effects, required paraphernalia, street-names of the required paraphernalia, etc… It still seems odd to me and I’m sure that even now, in conversations of a Class-A nature I sound uninitiated. Like an outsider to a cult that contains a mysterious secret; the chance for new life. We also smoked a great deal of weed, normally following the pill taking. I found that Noel laughed at me no matter what name I called the weed. Whether I asked him if he had any: weed, dope, puff, green, marijuana etc… he would laugh at me in the same way somebody would laugh at you for mispronouncing a word like hyperbole. Over time Noel started getting fewer pills and, instead, would provide me with a larger choice of drugs. Ketamine, MDMA, cocaine, psychedelics and even heroin. We did them all with abandon and I found that when I got home I felt seriously uncomfortable around my parents. One evening in early spring, Noel and I were on our picnic table looking out at the hills stretching into the glaring horizon and he gave me something to take which I took. I don’t remember exactly what happened next but the drug he gave me must have made me fall asleep because I woke up to him reaching under my top. I had little strength but I lurched forward and bit his arm. He was either not a violent man or just didn’t possess the power to fight me because he jumped from off of the picnic table, apologising repeatedly and ran away through the forest, never to speak to me again. Thankfully, at one of our meets in the past, I had taken the number of the person from whom he bought the drugs. I suspect that I had some underlying prejudice towards Noel which made me suspect he was capable of leaving me destitute, without drugs, unable to get high at will.
Though I wouldn’t say I was any kind of fiend, I certainly had a problem and I no longer laughed at my dad’s jokes or humoured him when he took the piss out of me. One evening at work, the boss at Martin’s Chicken asked me to come up to his office to discuss something. The office was on the floor above where they cooked and served the chicken. Another reason I didn’t entirely loathe the place was that there were no seats so nobody was ever really around eating, this meant that during quiet times there would not normally be any congestion or abuse from people waiting around. I went up to see John, the boss (I never asked why it wasn’t called John’s Chicken, or why, indeed, he wasn’t called Martin) and he ushered me in, the soiled pads of my oversized chicken feet softly dabbing the carpet. His face was grave and serious and I could tell this was bad news – my addled mind expected something simple, which was possibly due to the fact that I was now incapable of thinking around a subject for too long. John cracked his knuckles and cleared his throat repeatedly. He pointed to a chair on the other side of his desk and closed the window behind him. We were cloistered in the room and I felt the air begin to turn stale.
“Lara, listen.” He said.
“Laura,” I corrected him. Though I couldn’t be entirely sure.
“Sorry, of course. Laura, Laura. I’m just terrible with names. Forgive me?” He seemed genuinely upset at the mistake. “Laura. I’ve got something to tell you.
I took off my chicken head.
He continued, “Well, not tell you. To ask you really. Plead with you.” He elongated the e sound in plead.
This seemed odd to me. I had very little experience dealing with the owners of any of the businesses at which I had worked. This one, in particular, had been mostly absent from his office. I could see no plausible reason he might want to ask something of me and I couldn’t see in what endeavour I could possibly assist. I began to feel more worried than I had done before, when I thought I was merely going to be deemed surplus-to-requirements and let go. “What is it?” I stammered.
“Well, you do such a great job as our mascot, Martin.”
“No,” he looked puzzled and paused a while, “the mascot’s name is Martin.”
“As in, Martin’s chicken.”
“Martin’s Chicken.” I repeated.
“Yes. Here. Where we are now. Martin is the mascot.”
“So, the chicken sells the chicken?”
“It’s not important.”
Looking to one side and down at the floor I mouthed the chicken sells the chicken, John clearly saw the confused, disgusted look on my face and cleared his throat again.
“So, what did you want to ask me?”
“Well, as I said, you’ve done a great job so far. As Martin. In your first two weeks alone have seen our profits go up by around ten percent. Suffice it to say that we’ve never had a Martin that has danced as freely as you and, well, people see that kind of enthusiasm and they think – that place must be great!”
“I’m sure it’s nothing I’ve done.”
“No, no, it is. Martin’s position outside really is fundamental. We see you and the way you are with the customers. Well, potential customers. And, it’s so clear to see that they take a shine to you right away.”
“Aw, that’s nice.” I held my chicken head in my feathered hands like a motorcyclist holds his helmet in a petrol station.
“Well, basically. To get onto the meat of the conversation. What I really brought you up here for. Tomorrow is the annual town fete in Milton Keynes.”
“And, after bragging about you to the owner of Martin’s Chicken Milton Keynes, he wondered if he could borrow you.”
“Yes, well, just for a couple of hours in the daytime, to try and boost sales. We’ll pay your travel, of course. I’ve even taken the liberty of looking up bus and train times. It’s just, they don’t have a Martin costume down there, and they don’t operate the same way we do. But I’m sure they’ll get one after they see how much you improve their sales. You really are a gift to us. I know, you’ve got your degree and you don’t want to be doing this forever, probably not even for a long time, but while we’ve got you we want to make a show of it!”
“Martin’s Chicken is a chain?”
“So, essentially, they want you in Milton Keynes at about 12. Midday.”
“Yes, tomorrow. There’s a bus that leaves Newcastle at 6am you could take? I know it’s so awful of me to even ask this of you but we really, really need to build bridges”
“Between the stores. Outside of London there are fifteen Martin’s Chickens and we should really be sharing best practice, to boost sales. They are our colleagues after all.”
I left his office having agreed to do it for him. He promised me I would be paid a full day plus half again. On the way out of the office he said: “Lara, don’t forget to take your costume – as I said, the most pressing issue right now is that they don’t have a costume of Martin. So you’ll need yours.”
I stepped outside of Martin’s Chicken and put my head back on. It occurred to me that in order to take my costume on a bus to Milton Keynes I would have to wear it. It was as big as another person and I doubted that they would buy me two seats. I had taken a tab of LSD two hours before the start of my shift and things were beginning to get real. My own brain was throbbing within my skull which was itself within Martin’s skull. I watched kaleidoscopic light shoot in like bullets through the nostrils of Martin’s beak.